The Old Man

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Trotsky: A Biography by Robert Service
    Macmillan, 600 pp, £9.99, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 330 43969 5
  • Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky by Bertrand Patenaude
    Faber, 472 pp, £9.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 22876 8

When Isaac Deutscher was writing his great three-volume biography in the 1950s, Leon Trotsky was a name to conjure with. The first volume came out in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death and 14 years after Trotsky’s murder in Mexico by Stalin’s agent. The epic battle between the two antagonists was still fresh in people’s minds; all over the world, small stubborn groups of ‘Trotskyites’ fought the Stalinists in official Communist Parties. Trotsky’s works were widely read and translated into many languages, especially the brilliant History of the Russian Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed, as was Deutscher’s biography, based on the Trotsky archives at Harvard and in Amsterdam. In Deutscher’s account, Trotsky was the revolution’s ‘prophet’, armed in the first volume, unarmed in the second and outcast in the third. Love him or hate him, Trotsky – organiser of the October seizure of power, charismatic leader of the Red Army during the Civil War – seemed a man for the ages, one of the great figures of the 20th century.

Trotsky’s vilification by Stalin was part of the epic. It started in the 1920s with a succession struggle in which Trotsky, the most famous man in Russia after Lenin, was one major contender and Stalin the other. A weakness of Trotsky’s position was that he had joined the Bolsheviks so late: not until the summer of 1917, after years of attacking Lenin as the splitter of the social democratic movement. Stalin and his supporters played this for all it was worth, dredging up Trotsky’s most vicious attacks on Lenin from before the Revolution, and were equally successful in representing him as a cosmopolitan Jewish intellectual unsuited to lead a (Russian) workers’ party. His political fall after Lenin’s death in 1924 was spectacular in its speed and depth. By 1927, Stalin felt in a strong enough position to engineer Trotsky’s expulsion from the Party; a few months later he was exiled to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan; and by 1929, in a remarkable gesture of repudiation, he was deported from the Soviet Union altogether ‘for “anti-Soviet work”’. That wasn’t the end of the story: Stalin’s obsession with Trotsky grew in absentia. In the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement he was the demon driving counter-revolution throughout the world, a traitor in league with foreign intelligence services, and ultimately with Fascism; and in the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s an array of Old Bolshevik defendants – some of them his former supporters, others not – were convicted of being agents of his conspiracy against the Soviet Union and executed. He was now ‘Judas-Trotsky’, a creature so inhuman he couldn’t even be referred to by name and patronymic.

His destruction had been on the agenda of Soviet intelligence for some years before the show trials; Stalin was reportedly angry that it was taking so long. But there were complications. From the standpoint of European governments, Trotsky was the arch-revolutionary, not the arch-counter-revolutionary, hence an undesirable immigrant. When the Turks finally agreed to take him in, they made it a condition that there should be no Soviet assassination attempts while he was on Turkish soil. After Turkey, Trotsky embarked on a dismal odyssey in which he tried to find a European resting place while various European states, unwilling to add another problem to their relations with the Soviet Union, thought up reasons not to let him stay – the Labour government in Britain played a particularly shabby role. He was an embarrassment to the left, which was even more responsive than the right to Soviet pressure. Finally, thanks to the support of Diego Rivera and the willingness of Mexico’s left-wing president to stand up to the local Communist Party, he found a haven, if not a safe one, in Coyoacán until his murder in 1940.

In the Soviet Union, Trotsky remained a villain and a non-person almost to the end. Khrushchev rehabilitated some of the Old Bolsheviks killed by Stalin, but he had no interest in rehabilitating Trotsky. Nor did anyone else, apparently. In the 1960s, reform-minded Soviet intellectuals agitated, unsuccessfully, for the rehabilitation of another of Stalin’s old opponents, Nikolai Bukharin. But Bukharin, unlike Trotsky, was seen as a moderate, someone who might have represented an alternative to Stalinism and who could be invoked by advocates of a return to the economic policies of the 1920s. When Gorbachev, intellectually formed in the 1960s, came to power 20 years later, he formally rehabilitated Bukharin. Not Trotsky, however (though Robert Service oddly implies the contrary): like most other Soviet Communists, Gorbachev still had the instinctive revulsion against him acquired in his youth. Even in 1987, he still regarded Trotsky as the quintessential anti-Leninist, though he did allow him to be discussed in print. There was a small surge of interest in Trotsky among Soviet intellectuals in the late 1980s, but the collapse of the Soviet Union ensured that it was short-lived.

In 1992 Dmitri Volkogonov, a former general in the Soviet army who had made a splash a few years earlier with a revisionist biography of Stalin, came out with a sensational Trotsky biography (published in English in 1996), drawing on new sources, including the NKVD secret archives and the insider testimony of his friend Pavel Sudoplatov, the high-ranking NKVD officer charged by Stalin with organising Trotsky’s murder. Volkogonov was well along in his political evolution from anti-Stalinist Leninist to anti-Leninist when he wrote the Trotsky biography. Thus, while his Trotsky was a Leninist revolutionary (major revisionism in Soviet terms), Volkogonov no longer approved of Leninist revolutionaries. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky: they were all men of blood to him now, historically almost indistinguishable from each other. Still, there was a tinge of admiration for the outsize personality, along with astonishment that the demon proved to be human.

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[*] Faber, 476 pp., £20, November 2009, 978 0 571 23472.